A new office tower for JEA coming soon?

August 19, 2015 45 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

We've recently learned that the downtown campus the Jacksonville Electric Authority (JEA), once gleefully proclaimed a Christmas present to JEA, is now viewed as a crumbling albatross. To rid itself of the imposing liability, the JEA is moving forward with study to determine if it should retrofit, move, or demolish and rebuild their 19-story downtown headquarters. If we view this situation outside of the JEA's perspective, the resolution becomes quite clear.

2. Renovate the tower

The JEA converted the first floor of the former 180,000-square-foot J.B. Ivey's store into a customer service center.

Just because your car may need new tires and a paint job doesn't mean its time to send it to the scrapyard. On the surface, renovating the aging downtown operations center certainly makes sense. However, the JEA believes the structure is a safety hazard because it has an underground parking garage, making it a possible target for a bomb in a vehicle. Another problem JEA has with the structure is that the parking garage on has 513 parking spaces for its 758 employees.

The former Purcell's store and parking garage with Hemming Park in the background.

So we have a structurally sound building that actually already has 513 spaces of its own, including covered underground parking? This structure may not be adequate for an entity such as JEA, but the items being mentioned are extreme amenities in any downtown setting, including Jacksonville's.

Thankfully for downtown revitalization, this complex wasn't designed to be a heavily fortified security zone for a public utility. Originally known as Downtown Center, its actually one of the few large collection of buildings adequately designed to accommodate an interesting mix of commercial uses.

Designed by NYC firm Ketchum & Sharp and developed as a joint venture between the May Company and S.S. Jacobs Company, Downtown Center was intended to be a $15 million mixed-use project featuring two major retailers, dedicated parking facilities and an office complex. The first store to open was a 25,000-square-foot Purcell's Women's Store in 1962. It was joined by a six-story, 180,000-square-foot J.B. Ivey & Company department store. Anticipating future growth, Ivey's was structurally designed to accommodate two additional floors.

The lobby of the Universal-Marion Building

The crown jewel of Downtown Center was the $12 million Universal-Marion Building. At the time, the 268' tall, 19 story tower was the tallest building on the Northbank and second tallest in the city.  The building housed the Internal Revenue Service, law and insurance offices.  The Universal Marion Company was the largest tenant.  Founded by Louis Elwood Wolfson, a Wall Street financier and eventually the owner of the 1978 American Triple Crown winner 'Affirmed', Universal Marion owned the Miami Beach Sun and Jacksonville Chronicle newspapers and made movies through a subsidiary.

Inside the Ember's. Courtesy of the Jacksonville Public Library Special Collections Department

A year later a 250 seat restaurant, The Ember's, opened on the 18th floor.  Live Maine Lobsters were flown in from Booth Bay, Maine every Friday, which stayed open until 12:30am daily. Rotating 360 degrees every 1.5 hours, it was said to be the largest revolving restaurant in the world.

A retail galleria shopping mall was once proposed as a part of the 1971 Downtown Master Plan to connect May-Cohens (now city hall) with Ivey's and Purcell's. The former Ivey's and Purcell's buildings are a part of the Universal-Marion complex the JEA is considering demolishing.

So what does a moment of downtown nostalgia have to do with the JEA's decision? For a downtown core still lacking available big box retail space one block from Hemming Park, it means everything. Perhaps the best option for structurally sound buildings specifically designed for uses that downtown desperately needs, isn't a fortified maximum security zone. Especially considering the location still likely won't meet the 21st century needs of the JEA, even after a $50 million upgrade.

Minus the overhead street awning, the original use of JEA's headquarters complex was similar in layout to Kendall's (Miami) Dadeland Station complex.

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